Questioning Education

Growing up, my outlook on education was positive. Learning was enriching and fulfilling, and all I ever wanted to do was grasp more concepts. As I got older, my outlook became clouded. To this day I still question my views.

In an English writing course I am currently taking, we had the opportunity to write a paper on a facet of our education. Here is what I had to say:

“I believe people are born selfish, as a survival tool. I mean this in the most positive of ways. As a baby, you cry because you want something. You learn to crawl so you can get things for yourself, and eventually that turns into walking. Language is learned as a basis of communication and understanding, because as a human, you want to know things. Finally, you are placed into school to learn even more. Now, you may be nervous because you have never been in such an environment before, but you still go. You learn to read and write, simple mathematics, and small bits of science. During my elementary school years, there was still a great focus on art. Developing a creative mind and imagination, all rooted in things you, the student, wanted to create. Set aside the government’s implication that this level of schooling is required, and you will find that education at this point in time was based on how much you truly wanted it. As a child you want everything, asking questions and discovering. It was all for yourself.

Now let’s fast-forward to middle school and high school. Education became more intense, more in-depth, and more precise in nature. In a sense, the subjects became specialized. It was no longer “math”, but algebra, geometry, calculus, and statistics. It was no longer “science”, rather earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics. There were honors and AP classes. Everything became divided and classified. It was at this time where your thought process shifts from “what do I want to know?” to “what do I need to know?”. But another question arose, “why do I need to know it?” and the answer soon became, “to get into college”.

Accomplishing that goal, working towards a degree, that final product, has always seemed to be what everyone is striving for. My personal question is, who is the end result truly for? I do not believe that my generation was ever taught nor encouraged to pursue higher education for the sole purpose of learning, and that is where society went wrong.

I feel as though people are becoming embarrassed for seeking out their passions through higher education, which I had always thought to be the selfishness of it all. Attending school for the purpose of learning and not so much for the purpose of a career. I have even been told that I should be in it for the money. When I first realized that going to college was a dream of mine, I was never excited to begin my path to a career. My motivation was rooted in finally being able to choose what classes I wanted to take. I did not enjoy many of the courses I took in high school because I was required to take them; I was being told what to do. It always felt as though there were specific things that needed to be done, catered to being a certain type of student. But college was going to be different, or so I thought.

People always said “college is where you can find yourself” and “college will be the opportunity to pursue your passions”. I still believe those statements to be true. People also say that “having a degree leads to more job opportunities” and that “a degree makes a difference in how much money you will be capable of making”. However, people rarely pose those four statements in the same sentence or conversation. Which has since led me to believe that the pursuit of higher education has a split principle. You are either there for personal exploration, or to gain the skills needed for a particular career. The latter statement being what takes hold in student’s minds. How could it not? With America’s competitive job market, trickling down into competitive principles of education. Society pushes an individual to be a certain way, to develop into a certain type of person. I do not blame students for feeling as though they can only do one or the other. Selfishness, and the need to do something for yourself appears to have diminished. There is a “social standard one must meet”. This “standard” relates to Professor Cathy Davidson’s thoughts on a metaphor about an assembly line, which is referred to in an essay she composed. She explains that “in an assembly like, raw material is developed into a specific, predesigned product, where is it passed down from set station to station” which resembles several aspects of our education system. When you look at it from the perspective of someone whose end goal is to land a job in a certain career, an assembly line represents the exact formula. Attend college, complete general education, take specific courses pertaining to your major/discipline, and obtain your degree. It is explained as a straight shot; if you do this, then you get that. So as students, we feel the need to rush through the assembly line (our education), and to do so, it seems to be the case that you have to be the best at what you do. But those pressures arise the need to adapt to our fast-paced, ever-changing job market. How else could we support ourselves and find work after our years of schooling? Having that “competitive edge” (otherwise known as a college degree) arose as our new survival tool.

Now I am not saying that being a student now means that you have lost your choice to learn for yourself. That opportunity is still alive and well, I hope students are out there striving for that goal. I know that I am. The message I want to get across is the fact that many people find it possible to do both, while many others forget that doing so is even a possibility. Both being pursuing their passions and interests whilst building career skills and working towards a degree. And I get it, certain passions do not seem to fall under the “career” category for many people. For others, like myself, it is not uncommon to be told that your passions are in fact only hobbies and that work and hobbies are two separate things. That is why I find it unfortunate that students are not encouraged to learn for themselves once pursuing higher education. The possibilities are endless when you do explore your interests. Others have found this to be true as well. Princeton and Stanford graduate Ken Saxon explored his interests and explains his thoughts on college education in a speech he once delivered. He commented that “tons of young people head off to college…without really thinking about why, and what they want out of it”. I have always thought college was the time to immerse yourself in your selfishness. The time to do things for you, live life, and figure out the important things and determine your future path along the way. Unfortunately, many people do not think that way. However, there are people out there who share the same ideals as Saxon and I. He himself “took courses in sixteen different academic departments at Princeton”, and still managed to obtain his degree and live out his version of a successful life.

From my days in elementary school, to the days I now spend in community college, I have always wanted to do it for myself. I have never let anyone stop me from pursuing my interests, but I have felt the pressures of society to figure out my career path and go for it. Those pressures have affected my views of college education, as I am sure it has for many students out there. We students are lacking encouragement we need to be successful and feel motivated while taking this taxing courses and using our time to make something of ourselves and what we want to do. The fact that society is not providing us with that is pretty selfish, don’t you think?”

When I wrote this, I knew my thoughts were important. More important than the purpose of writing a paper for a class. That is why I wanted to share it here. I hope my words influence people to question what they are doing, who they are doing it for, and what it all leads to and means in the end.

You can find Cathy Davidson’s article here:

Designing Learning From “End to End”

You can find Ken Saxon’s speech here:

Value of a Liberal Arts education